Feminist Therapy: Is It Still Needed Today?

Happy graduate hugging fatherMany people agree that women have come a long way in regard to equal rights. Some even argue that women are completely equal to men and deny that sexism still exists. Others are appalled at the current state of attack on women’s rights. Whatever your opinion is on the current situation with equality among men and women and the concept of feminism, there is a specific type of therapy that still exists today called feminist therapy. With advances in equal rights, experts weigh in on the need for feminist therapy today.

Depending on who you ask, feminist therapy can be defined in slightly different ways. The website PsychologyCampus.com provides an extended definition of feminist therapy, including that it’s a type of therapy where “problems are viewed in a socio-political and cultural context.” Social change is encouraged as well in order to enhance the well-being of clients.

“The goals of feminist therapy is that the client will become aware of one’s gender role socialization process, to identify internalized gender role messages and replace them with functional beliefs, to acquire skills to bring about change in the environment, to develop a wide range of behaviours that are freely chosen and to become personally powered,” according to the website.

Laurel Clark, a psi counselor, said in an email that she received a bachelor’s degree in women’s studies and wrote her honor’s thesis on feminist therapy in 1978. She is the president of the School of Metaphysics. “I define feminist therapy as therapy which takes into account the paradigms that society accepts as ‘normal’ so that people who are seeking therapy can understand their inner needs,” Clark said. “The word ‘feminist’ has different connotations than it did in the 1970s. It applied today, as it did then, to the truth that people are defined by who they are, not by their gender. Equality and respect for the individual is the essence of feminist therapy.”

She believes that feminist therapy is still relevant and necessary today. “I grew up in New York with liberal parents and it never occurred to me that young women really believed all they needed was a husband and kids to be happy,” Clark said. “When I moved to the Midwest, I found out otherwise. Even today, in 2012, I meet women of all ages who think that their destiny is to be a mother and that they ‘have to’ have kids to be fulfilled. For some women this may be true; for many [others], it is not. People, male and female, need to understand that [there] are options. They need to visualize rather than just following the pattern they’ve seen in their own families or on TV or movies.”

The whole idea of feminist therapy is that there are options not limited to gender, which is still a concept that is not always understood today. “Feminist therapy explores options, respects the right of people to choose, aids clients to define happiness on their own terms rather than using a model of ‘normalcy’ that is no longer needed for the survival of the human race (such as, you have to have kids and a family to be happy),” Clark said.

Although she believes feminist therapy is still needed today, it’s not necessarily practiced widely, in her opinion. “The Midwest is very conservative; young women become mothers at a young age,” Clark said. “Certain populations, such as Spanish populations, in cities like Chicago, do not even consider the alternatives to becoming pregnant and having children at a young age, married or unmarried. Feminism is not very strong in the Midwest.”

If clients decide to seek out a feminist therapist, they might be able to explore options they hadn’t considered before. However, it’s also important that the therapist isn’t rigid in her beliefs. “It can negatively impact clients if the therapist is militant and who does not respect a client’s conservative viewpoint (although such a client wouldn’t seek out a feminist therapist),” Clark said.

She realizes that feminist therapy and society have come a long way since the 1970s, when she first heard of feminist therapy. Her first experience with counseling was when she became depressed and tried going to different therapists. “One of them told me that my problem was that I had moved halfway across the country and was missing my boyfriend who was in the place I moved from,” Clark said. “Although I missed him, that was not the cause for my depression. It was a deep soul angst … needing to discover my calling before plunging into graduate school and ending up with a career I didn’t want. It took me searching and researching for months to find a therapist who understood that my ‘identity crisis’ issues were real.”

Society has shifted somewhat in realizing that women do have more options they can pursue, but there are still rigid social norms in many cases. “Nowadays, there are more role models for women of other women who are successful in the business world; yet, there is still a strong belief system in this country that ‘normal’ means married with children,” Clark said. “Women (and men) who do not want that choice are often labeled in some way. Other people consider them to be lonely, or avoiding relationships, or having some kind of problem.” “I think that feminist therapy is needed to aid in changing the assumptions about what is normal,” she concluded.

Jessica LeRoy, the founder and executive director of the Center for the Psychology of Women, a feminist therapy center in Los Angeles, said in an email that feminist therapy focuses on equality and looking at issues from a societal and cultural viewpoint. “Feminist therapy is the practice of therapy in an egalitarian fashion, where we try to break down the power dynamics in play within therapy, and allow the client to be the expert in their lives opposed to the therapist being the expert,” LeRoy said. “There is also a focus on societal and cultural factors which may cause or exacerbate negative feelings or issues. Instead of the client being the problem we look at multiple factors contributing to the issue.”

LeRoy believes feminist therapy to be relevant and necessary today and says it is alive and well. “While women and men have made huge [strides] in balancing out inequities, there is still a long way to go,” LeRoy said. “Take an example of the current debate over birth control. That debate affects women and men on multiple levels and one is psychological. I also believe that with shifting roles within our society, men benefit from feminist therapy as well. It can be helpful to redefine for yourself what is your role apart from what society or your culture is telling you should be your role. [If] that prescribed role may not fit you and may cause you to feel negatively about yourself, why not change that role?”

She suggests clients look into feminist therapy and not get turned off by the word “feminism”—any person can benefit from this therapy. “I believe that feminist therapy can benefit almost any client,” LeRoy said. “Clients are usually very receptive to the idea that they are not ‘crazy,’ ‘screwed up’ or ‘helpless’ by looking at the factors that caused them to feel this way. It makes it far less personal and allows them agency to make those changes.”

She recalls a specific situation with a client that demonstrates how feminist therapy can be useful. “I worked with a client who was fearful of going to the grocery store after dark by herself,” she said. “Other schools of thought may have labeled her as dependent, fearful, socially phobic, etc. The client believed those things about herself that she was weak, dependent, not competent because she could not go to the store by herself at night. When we explored the reasons why she did not want to go to the store by herself, we discovered that the store was not in a good neighborhood, had poor lighting in the parking lot, and she had been whistled at in the store. So from a feminist point of view it sounds like she was coping quite well with the situation and taking precautions to protect herself.”

Doris Jeanette, a licensed psychologist, is an active member of the feminist therapy movement and still believes this therapy is necessary and relevant as well. “We need to be aware of our sexist conditioning as much as we ever needed it,” Jeanette said in an email. “We definitely need to raise awareness in the present generation, they don’t seem to have any awareness that sexism even exists. Even though sexism is obvious everywhere in our world today, you have to be trained to see the inequality. From what writers are paid to the fact that we have yet to have a woman president in [the] U.S.A. The current facts are unbelievably sexist in terms of what an equal world would really look like.”

She also recognizes ongoing issues that still need to be resolved in this type of therapy. In fact, she believes that for the most part, feminist therapy isn’t practiced widely today, and the feminist movement itself has retreated as well. She suggests this is due to rigidity in the movement, a conservative change in the country, and the takeover of managed care. She added that she was a member and supervisor of the Feminist Therapy Collective in Philadelphia for 6 years, which was later renamed Women’s Therapy Center.

“I think all of us who were part of that movement are still feminist and we have grown up and changed,” Jeanette said. “Personal growth needs to expand and continue throughout one’s life. I am sure many of us are making contributions that are based on our past feminist therapy experience. Once you know sexism, you never cannot know sexism.”

She said feminist therapy can benefit clients as long as individual therapists are helpful. “It is the person, not the treatment, that one needs to be concerned about,” Jeanette said. “Check out your therapist and do not continue to see a therapist who is not helping you. Find a therapist who resonates with you. If you stay with someone who you resonate with, you will definitely grow and flourish. Just because someone calls herself a feminist therapist does not mean she will be good for you.”

She said currently there is too much of a focus from mental health professionals on medication and “controlling behaviors,” but there is hope in a new movement. “A new, holistic psychology is emerging and it will lead the way toward a more sane, expressive, and enjoyable experience of being alive,” Jeanette said. “Men and women being equal will be part of the new psychology movement, and so will mind and body be equal.”

Hattie, known recently for her appearance on the show “Strange Sex,” specifically the episode called “Cougars and Cubs” on TLC, is a holistic life coach who said she worked as a movement therapist for over 20 years.

“The single most important issue for women was lack of confidence and negative body image,” she said. “Though it wasn’t specifically called, ‘Feminist Therapy,’ we worked on breaking through the challenges that made them feel undervalued. Despite the fact that their belief system was as feminists, many had internalized a demeaning view of themselves. Realizing the political nature of their rage, I concentrated on their personal feelings about being women. As they achieved greater self-respect, it helped them tackle whatever negativity showed up … in society, and from their ‘inner critic.’ From this place of personal power, they were in a better position to fight for women’s rights as feminists.”

She thinks one of the major issues to be tackled in therapy today is body image. “Currently, aging is emerging as a potent challenge to women, particularly as very young and super skinny models appear in advertisements,” Hattie said. “Because of this, I believe that women still need help to find an identity in which they feel confident, strong, and treated fairly. As a 75 year old, fit and glamorous woman, my clients are encouraged to honor their beauty at every age, and not be brainwashed into believing they are ‘over the hill.’ ”

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  • Patricia

    April 20th, 2012 at 1:21 PM

    I think that this is a realm of therapy that is still needed especially for younger women. No, I take that back, I think that this is something that any woman could benefit from. We have made it a long way but there is still so far to go. I think that if you look at just the basic things like pay equality, women still do not make as much money as men do even when experience and education are exactly the same. It’s hard to believe that this is the kind of thing that women still face in the workplace. Women are expected to juggle far more than men are and are compensated less. Where is the fairness in that?

  • maya e

    April 20th, 2012 at 3:06 PM

    women will say yes. . . men will say no. . . it’s still the battle of the sexes

  • Vanessa A

    April 21st, 2012 at 8:13 AM

    My mom was a real bra burner back in her younger days!
    But she has turned so far to the right that I honestly don’t even recognize her anymore.
    She is not the same woman who raised me to be a strong female, and certainly not one who would agree that the feminist movement needs to continue.
    But I for one think that now more than ever this is a tradition that we have to keep going.
    I don’t want my own daughter to think that the only path in life for her to take is to go through it barefoot and pregnant.
    I want her to never feel the limitations that I think we have all felt from time to time being a female.
    And I want my mother back.

  • Geoff

    April 21st, 2012 at 2:21 PM

    I am a younger guy in my twenties so for me I am kinda like why does there need to be something different for women than for me? I mean, isn’t this the same kind of thing that you ladies having been fighting against, and yet here you are advocating for different treatment! It just confounds me. To me you have the same opportunities to grow and to get ahead that men do. Maybe I don’t see the whole big picture because the whole time I have been alive I have never witnessed one bit of discrimination against a womn just because she is a woman. I have seen women not get jobs because they might not be qualified or not make as much money as a man. But I can also homestly say that I have seen men not get a job over a woman because they are less qualified. I think that there is far more fairness than you are giving society credit for. I mean, in other cultures there may still be that whole male dominance thing, but I fail to see that at all here in the US.

  • cate c

    April 22nd, 2012 at 4:30 AM

    I am a women’s studies major where I go to school and this for me has been truly liberating! I used to be of one mindset but my work in this field has opened my eyes and my mind to all that we can be, but that we have to be the ones to make those changes. It is no longer about setting out to change the law because those steps have already been made. Now is the time to change the minds of so many of us women who do not think that we have what it takes to make it in a man’s world. WE DO! But it is long past the time to sit back and wait for aomeone to take the steps for us; now it is our turn to decide what we want and to prepare all of our sisters to go out there and get it.

  • Vicki

    April 23rd, 2012 at 4:21 AM

    Can’t rule it out cause there is something for everyone. . . but is it needed across the board? No, it actually feels a little dated.

  • Gary

    April 23rd, 2012 at 5:40 PM

    Women are called sluts for seeking birth control coverage.
    They are considered whores if they get an abortion.
    Don’t you think that it is time that they are allowed to do whatever they deem to be the right choice for them when it comes to their reproductive health?
    I don’t even think that this would be an issue of it was something that was male centric.

  • RT

    April 24th, 2012 at 11:35 PM

    What can further a person in his life and it’s satisfaction is available in general therapy as well.A therapist who is not a feminist-specialist will also te the client about their life options and how best they can move ahead in life.I don’t think feminist therapy is very relevant in this day and age.

  • chele

    February 25th, 2015 at 3:41 PM

    I feel that we as women do not need anyone telling us what to do with our bodies. We have come a long way with equal pay but it still is not going the way it should because men are still valued more and women are called neglectful if they stay at work for long hours while a man is just called a workaholic.

  • Nechama

    July 6th, 2017 at 12:34 PM

    This was a great article til I got to the blatantly racist statement that “Spanish populations” don’t ever even consider that they might have options other than having kids. First of all, do you mean Latinx populations, which span a HUGE range of cultures and geography, and generally speak Spanish? Or actually all the people from Spain who live in the midwest? Second, its super problematic to make such big generalizations, especially generalizations that members of an oppressed group lack agency. This is white feminism at its worst, including assuming that we are all white, and ignoring racism. Actually, this article doesnt just ignore the racism that Latinx people face, it perpetuates it with that stereotypical statement. And then we wonder why so many people of color dont feel comfortable coming to therapy….

  • Roger

    September 24th, 2020 at 3:43 PM

    I like Good Therapy.

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